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Factions in school debate need a time-out

Pardon me, kids, but is it too much to ask that teachers union representatives, L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and L.A. Unified School District officials begin acting like adults?

Here we are, nearly certain to see more budget cuts and layoffs at schools in the spring — and possibly for years to come — and I’m not hearing anyone talk seriously about how to proceed with the least amount of damage to the children.

We’ve got Villaraigosa attacking United Teachers Los Angeles for beating back proposed reforms.

We’ve got UTLA officials flat-out refusing to give an inch on reforms that are being adopted throughout the country.

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And we’ve got school board members whose only idea of how to deal with the looming crisis is to try to raise a few measly bucks by selling branding rights to corporations. Don’t be surprised if your child’s graduation ceremony is held in Chevron Auditorium at Halliburton High.

Thanks, but no thanks. Can’t we preserve what little innocence is left in our children, rather than remind them we don’t value their education enough to support it without corporate marketing campaigns?

If the school board wanted to do something productive about corporate support, it would take the lead in ending the huge property tax advantage that corporations enjoy in California. Commercial property got the same benefits from Proposition 13 as residential property did. But because their land doesn’t change hands as often, many big businesses in the state pay property taxes based on a fraction of the true value.

Every time I mention Prop. 13, I get buried under complaints from people claiming they were about to be taxed out of their homes before the tax-cutting proposition was passed in 1978. Yes, tax relief was needed for thousands of Californians. But it didn’t need to be as drastic as it was, and corporations shouldn’t have gotten the same deal.

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With California now ranked 47th in the nation in funding per student, it’s time for school boards across the state to tell the incoming governor to push for a “split roll” that would differentiate between homeowners and corporate landowners. Jerry Brown has been warning of fiscal disaster that’s worse than he imagined, and he’s asking the right questions: What do we value and want to pay for, and how do we intend to pay for it?

Whatever the answers, I’m guessing they won’t come soon enough to head off another round of layoffs in L.A. Unified and beyond. And that means that more teachers could be let go regardless of their ability in the classroom, based on nothing but years of service.

Teachers are right: They’re made out to be the villains in the current national conversation on public education, when, in fact, parents, students, principals, administrators and money are all part of both the problem and the solution.

Halfway through my daughter’s third year in a terrific L.A. Unified public school, I’ve got a great appreciation of teachers. The range of student abilities and behavior issues in classrooms is staggering, and a tough job is made harder as support services are stripped away one after another.

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But just as principals and administrators are not created equal, neither are teachers, as UTLA would have you believe. It seems to me they all would benefit from a system that examines why certain teachers are better at classroom management or teaching fifth-grade math and then rewards them by bumping up their pay, while giving more training to those who need it.

I’ve heard all the arguments against the value-added system in which teachers are graded on their students’ test score improvements, and they have some merit: there are lots of variables in a classroom, test scores don’t necessarily measure learning and value-added isn’t perfect.

But nobody said it is. LAUSD has proposed that just 30% of a teacher’s evaluation be based on test scores.

UTLA’s position?

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Test scores shouldn’t go into evaluations at all.

End of discussion.

Really? Couldn’t tests account for a mere 10% to 20% of an evaluation?

No, UTLA Treasurer David Goldberg told me, repeating UTLA President A.J. Duffy’s unwavering insistence that there’s no evidence test scores are a credible tool.

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There’s no evidence kids are benefiting from the inability of the grownups to compromise. Ted Mitchell, chair of the state Board of Education, said the two sides ought to be able to find some mutually beneficial common ground. If the UTLA doesn’t bend a bit, he said, “it’s going to be the laggard” as other districts enjoy the extra freedoms and money tied to reform.

UTLA has to do something other than say “no.” It should long ago have come up with a better evaluation system to avoid being force-fed one.

Goldberg said the union has been working on a better system, and he referred me to the union’s 10-point policy statement on the subject.

Frankly, I wasn’t impressed. The statement is high on general beliefs and short on practical details.

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OK, parents, teachers, readers, taxpayers and citizens of the world, I’ve got a question for you:

Would you support a system in which 20% of a teacher’s evaluation is based on test scores, 80% is based on peer review by teachers and administrators, those who score the highest get raises, those who score the lowest get training, principals get evaluated as vigorously and as often as teachers, and layoffs, when necessary, are based on a combination of seniority and performance?

Let me know what you think, and I’ll make sure the district and the union hear what you have to say.

steve.lopez@latimes.com


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